“Ara Eko, Ara Oke”: Lagos, Culture, and the Rest of Us

by Pius Adesanmi

Every generation loves to articulate a border identity in Nigeria. Never mind Wole Soyinka’s dissing of his own generation as a wasted one. In the nature of things, your generation always just happens to be the last best generation before whatever value systems or institutions you are discussing collapsed irredeemably, hence the tendency to dismiss the generation after you contemptuously. For instance, I belong to a generation of Nigerians that is always grumbling about the perverse values of those Facebook and Twitter addicts now in their twenties and their teens. When two or three Nigerians in their 30s-40s are gathered, they abuse Nigeria’s rulers, discuss football, before grumbling about the generation of Nigerians in their 20s and below.

You hear members of my generation gloating about how we were the last ones to be raised by parents with strong moral and ethical values in Nigeria. You hear talk that we were the last who got beaten by our parents if we came home from school with a ten-kobo coin in our pocket whose origin we could not account for (today, a 20-year-old can just drive from Lagos to the village in a brand new Hummer, no questions asked); we were the last who had to read books. We grumble that these young ones in their twenties now are so allergic to reading that you could hardly get them to read one book per year. Contributing to such beer and chicken wings pub discussions, I would claim that the best gifts I got as a teenager were titles from the African Writers Series. Now, to gain the attention of my younger ones in Nigeria, the gift has to be a blackberry or an ipod, definitely not a book.

We forget that the generation just before us – those mostly now in their fifties – is perhaps saying exactly the same uncomplimentary things about us, believing, just like us, that they are the last best generation to happen to Nigeria. Please allow me to enter an extended digression here to take care of a mild irritation from Howard University. Most members of this generation I have been privileged to meet and interact with in life are genuine role models who understand the full cultural ramifications of the label, “elder”, and the fact that the wearer of the said label does not enjoy an open sesame to indecorous over-reach in the name of whichever culture he professes to come from. You encounter them from every Nigerian ethnic group in cyber Nigeria, dignified netizens in their 50s and 60s, rubbing minds with younger Nigerians, with a keen sense of the sort of deportment that commands automatic respect for their age. They have my absolute respect.

At the irascible fringe of this generation, unfortunately, you sometimes encounter online the risible public bully inebriated by gerontocracy. The teenage schoolyard bully, who already was never successfully weaned off the Mirror stage in his formative years, erupts midlife to slow down or arrest the natural course of senescence completely. Locked in this ontological vortex of arrested development, this type self-fashions as a generational gatekeeper, a humongous Esu of the mini-Robespierran ilk, condemned to vagabond minstrelsy at the crossroads of Nigerian public intellection where he perpetually constructs generational boundaries etched in granite, screaming his age and the fetishized age gap between him and those he considers younger irritants to the point of boring, iterative superfluity. Welcome to the sad spectacle of the psychologically impecunious “elder” and confectioner of patronising “teachable moments” who constantly needs to proclaim his eldertude in listservs instead of earning, being, and behaving it.

The resultant Faustian pact he has signed with his oversized ego, coupled with a repugnant misuse and abuse of one and the repeated age gap, ensures that congenital condescension is the only dialect he speaks incoherently at the first hint of intellectual dissent with anyone younger than him. From his watch tower at the generational border, he presses an outrageous misreading of culture into the service foul-mouthed geriatrics bordering on manhood jabs and juvenile sexual taunts unbecoming of his station. Here is one tenebrous human psychology that makes Fyodor Dostoyevsky look like an apprentice boy scout in the art of depicting the darkness of the human psyche.

A master of the condescending put-down and the clever double entendre, he is never gracious, generous, or charitable to his fellow man in public disquisitions unless there is something in it for his ego. Modes of address that he won’t dare to deploy in the presence of his 18-year-old American sophomores at Howard are heaped daily on adult Nigerians who dare to hold their own against him based on the fraudulent argument that his is a culture that constructs youth as permanent peonage to the idiosyncratic excesses of an irredeemable bully.

The good news: this character can only intimidate or blackmail transient players in the field of discourse. The bad news: I am here, absolutely unfazed and unblackmailable by his gerontocratic casuistry. Let me put him on notice that his every shenanigan, every snide remark, every condescending put-down tucked in the most imperceptible corner of a post will be greeted by a forceful response in the spaces of public intellection. He should back the heck off this writer! We need not waste more time on this detour from the original premiss of the present treatise. I will always find accommodation for him as a digression in subsequent essays until he understands that this writer will NOT be the foot mat of any acultural bully who is congenitally incapable of behaving his age in circuitries of public intellection.

Suffice it to say that I feel sufficiently enamoured to exploit the outlined generational border dynamics, albeit jokingly, and declare that mine was the last generation that attended Titcombe College, Egbe, when Titcombe was Titcombe! After us, the deluge and the locust years! The regular story of Nigeria’s institutional collapse became the portion of Titcombe College – apologies to Pentecostals! Titcombe wasn’t just Titcombe when we enrolled in the early eighties because of the exceptionally high quality of secondary education she offered, she was Titcombe because of the multicultural mosaic of peoplehood that she assembled. The average classroom of 35-40 students boasted enrolment from all the then 19 states of the Federation. Every classroom in the Titcombe of my time was a miniature Nigeria on display.

The Senior Prefect when I was in Form One was a Benjamin Okoro. My own Form 1C boasted last names like Idongesit, Akpan, Nwaobia, Dowyaro, Zom, Argungu, Okereke, Ajamufua, Whyte, Jackson, and Etomi. The teaching staff comprised an even broader mix of nationalities. Our teachers came from all over the world. Apart from Nigerian teachers, there were the whites: Mr. and Mrs. Balinsky from Canada, Mr Finch from America, Mrs. Bamigboye from Holland; there were lots of Indian teachers but I remember now only Mr. and Mrs. Anthony and Mr. Thomas; there were Chinese and Philippino teachers whose names I no longer remember; then there were the Ghanaians, the dreaded Mr. Inkumsah and the gentler Mr. Badu who taught Fine Arts. Needless to say, all these foreign teachers had their kids enrolled with us in our classrooms. With such a cosmopolitan mix of staff and studentry, the terroristic “Do Not Speak Vernacular” injunction was virtually useless. You had to speak English anyway.

The Lagosians came with a psychology that requires closer attention. I still do not know – and I need to research this – why Titcombe College attracted that many number of students of Lagos state origin. I am not just talking about students who came from Lagos because their parents were domiciled there but autochthonous Lagosians. They always came to Titcombe in droves. And with them our rude introduction to one of Nigeria’s most atavistic forms of the rural-urban binary. For the

Lagos contingent believed, paradoxically, that their provincialism was proof of their superiority to “awon ara oke” – rural dwellers or bush people. Most of us had been to Lagos. But you went to Lagos to spend “long vac” with your immediate or extended family members domiciled there. You had little or no contact with the provincialist psychology of the autochthonous Lagosian who was now your classmate in Titcombe college.

The provincialism of this Lagosian is better explored in contrast with the sociology of those of us who formed the non-Lagos population of Titcombe. The average student had family scattered all over northern Nigeria, the middlebelt, the southeast, and the south-south and would most likely have been to cities like Sokoto, Kaduna, Kano, Maiduguri, Yola, Minna, Makurdi, Benin, Warri, Enugu, Port Harcourt, and Calabar. There was always an uncle or an aunty or some other distant relative in one of these cities that you were told was inviting you for your next long vac. In addition to this scenario, I accompanied my Dad, one of those Spartan missionary-colonial secondary school principals, on his peripatetic trips across the country to attend his ANCOPSS conventions. He took me along on his trips because he always preached the educational value of travel.

This means that most of us non-Lagosians came to Titcombe already vastly socialized into the divergent cultural richness of the various peoples of Nigeria. We had eaten their food and had been humanized by their ways of seeing and being. Every trip to a different cultural horizon was a new world gained. Years later, my university discipline would teach me that what I was doing then was exploring and being enriched by the world of the Other. I was acquiring cultural capital. I personally had never met anybody completely marooned within their own cultural and spatial geography until I met and made friends with the first real “Lagos people” in Form One. Coming to Titcombe College was almost always their first ever travel outside of the city limits of Lagos!

But they came with an attitude. You could see it written all over their faces that they were wondering which deity they offended to make their parents bundle them out of their beloved Lagos to attend secondary school in a village in the middle of nowhere in the then kwara state – Titcombe is now in Kogi state. Looking back now, I think the contempt between the Lagos crowd and the rest of us was mutual. Theirs was a conceptualization of the world that reduced the immensity and diversity of Nigeria to one grand narrative of chaotic, garbage-ridden, and rickety modernity called Lagos – Fashola was still a long way off! Everything and everyone outside of their world was bush – the “ara oke” that a cruel fate and the Christian egalitarianism of the Canadians of the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM), led by the Reverend Thomas Titcombe, had dumped onto their sophisticated paths.

For us, we were meeting folks who knew nothing about the rest of that vast country and were therefore monocultural. We found their reductionist purview and the limited scope of their experiential references tiring. Our school kids’ anecdotes and experiences extended from Abakaliki to Zungeru via Ibadan, theirs extended from Lagos to Lagos via Lagos. Just as Americans give you a feeling that it is your responsibility to know America and not theirs to know the rest of the world, the ignorance of our classmates from Lagos came with a haughty arrogance: it was our responsibility to know Lagos and not their responsibility to know Nigeria. During break time brawls, some of them would declare with authority that nothing out of Lagos was worth knowing: “mi ni mi de ti so fun won pe ko si ibi to dabi Eko”.

Because many of our Lagos classmates came from the upper middle class to the apex of the class structure in Ikoyi and Victoria Island, their conception of modernity, polish, refinement, and culture devolved from the genteel Victorianism of their parents – identity traits that we now categorize as “aje butter”. They brought to Titcombe a rarefied version of Lagos that excluded everything from Ajegunle to Oshodi, Abule Egba to Okokomaiko. They brought a version of culture that was threatened by the bush. They had Humpty Dumpty and Mary’s little lamb; we had ijapa (tortoise) and all his adventures in our folk tales.

To this day, much of what the Nigerian understands and accepts as cultural refinement and polish still devolves from the values, tastes, and perceptions of this genteel Victorian class that spreads from the Lagos high society to top government circles in Abuja via the narrow circles of Nigerian corporatism. Crumbs of what this upper class considers as modernity move to classes below them by sedimentation. Today, when you encounter the Lagosian who still traffics ignorantly in the passé “ara Eko” versus “ara oke” opposition, especially in the rarefied circles of online conversations among educated and enlightened Nigerians, he is most likely coming from a conceptualization of culture, polish, and cosmopolitanism informed by the apish Victorianism of the Lagos genteel class that those Lagosian classmates of mine and their parents foisted on Titcombe college years ago.

This, of course, represents crass ignorance. As usual, the Westerners who introduced upper class Nigerians to the sort of genteel Victorianism on display when Dimeji Bankole leads House discussions in his nasalized Britico accent have long left this category of copy-copy Nigerians behind. For this class of Nigerians, culture, refinement, and polish are exclusively about returning home to Ikoyi, Victoria Island, or Lekki from a golf game to evening dinner receptions where they listen to Beethoven, drink cabernet sauvignon, perrier, latté, and espresso; discuss Laz Ekwueme’s last conducting of Mozart’s Symphony No.4 in D Major; discuss their acquisition of some unknown European painter’s work (proudly displayed on the wall) during their last summer vacation in London; the women throw in the latest gossip from the haute couture worlds of Milan, Paris, and New York, while scheming to make it into the next issue of Dele Momodu’s Ovation or to be profiled at bellanaija.com

Because I have access to some of these circles of old money and genteel culture in Lagos, the student of culture in me is always busy and extremely attentive at their gatherings, comparing their ‘aje butter’ mores and mannerisms with those of their Oyinbo teachers in London and Paris. Let us settle for Paris for the obvious reason that the French are sufficiently arrogant to consider themselves at the apex of western culture and civilization. They look down on all other Europeans, especially the English across the channel; they have zilch regard for America and Canada because they do not believe that North American Caucasians are cultured. Not even Glen Gould’s global fame makes them think that Canada is cultured.

So, what do the French notions of homme de culture (man of culture) and société de culture (milieu of culture) mean and how have they evolved notably in the 20th and 21st centuries? Before 1968, the homme de culture who circulated at the highest levels of culture and civilization was like his peers in the West despite his French superiority complex: polished, refined, genteel, manners, taste, elegance, books, opera, vintage wine, baguette, cheese, caviar, pâté, specialist coffee, museums, art collections. Add savoir-faire to savoir-vivre and you get the picture of what dinner gatherings and soirées looked like in Paris among this class o

f French cultivés.

By the 1950s, new cultural energies were being released all over the Western world that would radically inflect what it means to be cultured and cosmopolitan forever. This means that by the time the emergent elite in Lagos was being born into uppity and snobbish Victorianism in the build up to independence, by the time they were learning their funny affectation of British and, later, American accents, the owners of the culture were already moving on. The Nigerian elite was manufactured by the British into conceptions of cultural polish that emerged from the Enlightenment, were consolidated by modernity, and had run out of steam by the time the Mr. Follow-Follow Nigerians in the upper class arrived on the scene speaking chaotic Britico and Americana accents through their sophisticated noses. Today, their children are still talking like that in Lagos.

The 1950s unleashed the era of cultural libertinism that would explode in the 1960s and undermine rarefied conceptions of culture. The cultural vocabulary of that era came to be defined by the ways of being and seeing of hitherto excluded and countercultural groups like the beat generation (beatniks), rock ‘n’roll, and youth subculture. In the ensuing struggle for the meaning of culture, manners, taste, elegance, books, opera, vintage wine, baguette, cheese, caviar, pâté, specialist coffee, museums, and art collections discovered that they now had to contend with sex, the pill, marijuana, LSD, guns, afro, T-shirt, and jeans. Welcome to Hippiedom where kitsch and grundge became the new cool and Savile Row suits had to adapt. Sushi and General Tso’s chicken would invade the space of culture later to further complicate matters. The shift in cultural vocabulary during this era is neatly captured in “Howl”, that great and famous poem by Allen Ginsberg that seemed to have won the struggle for the soul of culture for the little people on the streets of America.

The explosion of cultural libertinism in America was also affecting Europe and things finally exploded in France and other parts of that continent in 1968 when French youths, philosophers, and public intellectuals took to the streets to reject stifling models of society. Culture in Europe and America would never look back after 1968. Events on the political scene ensured this. After having their asses thoroughly whipped by the Vietnamese at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the French discovered that noodles, dumplings, and sticky rice were not unworthy items in discussions of haute cuisine; they would make pretty much the same humbling discovery about méchoui, merguez, couscous, tajine, and other elements in Arabo-Magbrebian cuisine after also having their asses whipped in Algeria.

In essence, as imperialism and colonialism disappeared, what began to emerge globally were not just new nation-states all over the Third World but also the hitherto repressed and despised cultures of indigenous peoples. Elements from the cultures of “ara oke” were making it into cultural conversations in the West and forcefully demanding recognition. Knowledge of and competence in them began to determine who was cultured. In academia, this marked the postmodern and the postcolonial turn and the valuation of multiculturalism. With the emergence of the cultures of Africa, Asia, Latin America and their stubborn claim to a place in the sun, the nature of the French soirée began to change.

Dinner was no longer just about inviting the culturati to the delectation of exclusive French haute cuisine under huge chandeliers in a room with original Louis XIV dining chairs and dining table, a Picasso and a Matisse hanging on the wall, Georges Brassens singing softly in the background. Today, there may also be Ivorian attiéké, aloko (dodo in Nigeria), and Senegalese maafe on that dinner table, just between the bouillabaisse and the gigot. On the wall, between Picasso and Matisse, may be paintings of artists from Tahiti to Zanzibar. Georges Brassens and Beethoven would have lost their monopoly in the CD player to a rotation with Kora and Balafon music from Sahelian Africa, Andean flute music from Latin America, and Oud instrumentals from the Middle East.

Cultured conversation is at the heart of the French dinner experience. It has to be because dinner could easily last five hours from apéritif to dessert. Do not be surprised that the French culturati gathered around that dinner table may have heard of the paintings of Marcia Kure, Olu Oguibe, Victor Ekpuk, and Victor Ehikhamenor whereas their counterparts around similar dinner tables in Ikoyi and Victoria Island can only affect drab conversation about the London art scene; do not be surprised that some of them have dropped “primitive” in their discussions of the impact of indigenous art on Gauguin (Tahiti) and Picasso (Africa); do not be surprised that these French men and women will listen with very rapt attention if you introduce burukutu and paraga as topics of cultured discourse. They will ask you pertinent questions about the sociology of both drinks, make you describe their colour, texture, taste, aroma, what roots and leaves are mixed in paraga and why. Obviously, I am speaking from experience here.

While everyone is pretending to know more about champagne and French wine than the owners of the culture, try introducing paraga and burukutu talk to dinner conversation in Lagos if you are even privileged enough to be invited to such tight circles in the first place. Yawa go gas for you. Depending on how high-end the circle is, try speaking a Nigerian language at any point or even try English without a trace of Britico and Americana accent and you could be in trouble. The dinner table in Paris is looking for how to be competent in discussing the cultures of “ara oke” as proof of cosmopolitanism and cultural eclecticism, the civilized “ara Eko” is locked in the past, thumbing his nose at such cultures, and feeling insulted if he hears such lowly Africans speak their ‘dialect’ while cleaning airport toilets in the West. And you go online and encounter him, who sits down in Toronto to wax eloquent about what is cultured and what is crude, his conceptualization of culture wholly informed by the otiose Victorianism that Lagos and his friends in Abuja have saddled him with.

To be cultured and cosmopolitan – at least among the informed – now in the West is to have an eclectic cultural capital and a polyvalent scope of reference that could accommodate Bach and Salawa Abeni, Beethoven and Comfort Omoge, caviar and ikokore, merlot and burukutu, and not to see one as inferior to the other; it is to be equally culturally competent in the Nigeria of Rolls Royces and Cadillacs and the Nigeria of the Agatu yam farmer; it is to be able to move effortlessly from lunch at Golden Gate in Ikoyi to dinner at Mama Put in Obalende; it is to understand that if you look for “Orere Elejigbo”, that Yoruba classic by the Lijadu sisters on youtube, you’ll see an extended version of it being performed in Tel Aviv by Idan K & the Movement of Rhythm, an Israeli band. When a Jew sings “Orere Elejigbo” in Tel Aviv, renders it in Afrobeat because he appreciates the bucolic power of that song, what does that make him? It makes him an “ara oke”: the new location of global cultures!

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Tokunbo March 29, 2010 - 10:36 pm

The experience described could have easily been my boarding school in Ondo state.

Good job! what I took from your article is that you can be well-rounded without excluding your own native culture. I could not have agreed more.

Welcome back Pius!!

Kyauta March 24, 2010 - 4:34 pm

Pius, you are at it again!!! I had a good laugh going down memory lane!


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